In November 2018, I took part in a story telling event run by DynamoVerse called Verse In Prose. It's an event which provides a platform for people to share true and personal stories centred around a specific theme. The theme on the night that I spoke was 'Gratitude'.
Here's the transcribed version...
"Dear God. Thank you for bringing us here today. Please bless our time of communion together. And thank you for the food which we are about to share. Amen."
Rituals and giving thanks
I grew up in a Korean Christian family. My dad is a pastor, actually. In my faith tradition, one of the many rituals that we have is to pray before we eat a meal. Depending on the occasion and who is there, it would vary in length and content. The example that I started with earlier is about as short as it can be, while still maintaining a level of respectability, to be used when you’re hungry or can’t really be bothered. "Yum, yum, thanks for the grub," doesn't really fly.
Rituals are powerful - their effects don't just stop with the physical acts. (Neither do I believe rituals in themselves are sacred or holy!). One of the many impacts that this ritual had on me when I was younger was to develop this sense of being safe. That there was someone looking out for me. That there was this other worldly person, reaching into this world and directly providing me with my daily bread (or rice, as it was more likely to be).
It developed this image that God was someone who directly gives. So we’re thankful for the stuff he gives us. And if he doesn’t, it’s because there is some good to come as part of his divine plan.
So this is the image I had. God in control. A man with a plan. And God is a good, so the plan must also be good. A leads to B leads to C leads to D.
When things went wrong, for example, not getting into Cambridge like I thought I wanted (I can't believe that's the one example I'm sharing), or when I experienced more and more negative experiences in my life (which, you know, happens in everyone’s life)... it was still part of God’s plan.
If B is a shitty event, it’s because it would lead to C and eventually D, which is a good event. So actually B was a good event because it is part of a good God’s plan.
It made me wonder though. If God was really in control, was he making these bad events happen, so that good things can happen later? Or at best allowing these bad things to happen?
The cracks begin to appear
When I was in my earlyish teenage years, my grandfather had a stroke, which left him paralyzed in his right side. For over ten years following that incident, he was largely bed bound. He could no longer communicate with people well because of his slurring. I actually don’t remember ever really having a talk with him for more than a minute. I’d get frustrated because I couldn’t understand him. He spent most of his life watching TV, lying down, having to rely on people to clothe him, feed him, bathe him and take him to the toilet.
Could any good come from this? Could I call this good? Cracks began to appear.
23 April 2014
Let’s fast forward a few years to April 2014. My younger brother died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 23.
Now at this point, I’d drifted quite far from church and hadn’t been going regularly for many many years. But after my brother died, I went to the church he was going to in West London to feel closer to him. And to find out from those who were his friends, what his life was like, because we didn’t meet up all that much.
What I found was really difficult. I don’t know what your experience is like with churches, but this was a Korean church. And it was quite happy clappy. So there was this jarring contrast between how people were feeling because of my brother’s death, and singing happy clappy songs the week after my brother’s funeral.
I remember also that some people would say to me… This is part of God’s plan. That made me so angry. How insensitive and stupid that was. And those that were visibly sad at losing a close friend, who would ask me, "Is this part of God’s plan?" And I would get angry at their stupidity and think that they were pathetic.
I guess that’s why they sang happy clappy songs. Because God is good. And God has a plan. And God is in control. So because things that happen are part of his plan and it’s good so we should be happy.
In the months following my brother’s death, I spent a great deal of time digging into his emails, texts and phone. Trying to piece together the last few months of his life. It was agonising but a picture began to emerge. In front of his church friends he would seem positive and happy. But he was struggling with feelings of inadequacy, rejection following a break up, and using drugs bought off the black market to numb the pain.
His pain and struggles had no place in his happy clappy church. He turned to substances as a way of release and a bad batch took him away from us. It’s ridiculous, because in my months of attending my brother’s church, I could see with my own eyes that people there were struggling and fighting their own battles. There just wasn’t the space for it.
This combination of experiences - the happy clappy nature of that particular church, the stupid things churchgoers said to me, and the feeling that they let my brother down led me to rejecting the church once again, which I’d already moved away from anyway.
My brother’s death has another impact on me. After graduating from university, I joined a graduate programme at a consultancy called Deloitte. There I became the sterotypical city worker. Cold, hard, stressed, calculating, intelligent and unempathetic. It may surprise you now, but one time I took this psychopath test online (after reading 'The Psychopath Test' by Jon Ronson) and the results came out uncomfortably towards the that end of the spectrum.
Let me give you an example to illustrate what I mean. So you all know plastic shopping bags, right? Well, I used to (and sorry, I still do) use them as bin liners. The thing is though, in the UK, these shopping bags have these holes in the bottom. So there would be times when I'd take out the bins and the bin juice would seep through and leak on the floor, which pissed me off to no end.
So at work I was complaining about these damned holes to a colleague one day and she informed me that the government had mandated them because a kid somewhere in rural England had somehow managed to suffocate himself with a plastic shopping bag. I was bewildered and replied, "That's just natural selection."
Or to give another example, I remember me complaining about the Tube strikes while at Deloitte. Just to recap for readers that may not be familiar with this particular topic, London Tube drivers occasionally go on strike to fight for better pay, working conditions and for job security. The popularised stereotype is of drivers that get paid a lot for not doing a very "skilled job" (there is even a song by my fellow Imperial College alumni - now practising doctors would you believe it). So who are they to strike and dare cause an inconvenience to us hard working city folk, who at the time was getting paid less than them? So, as ones does, I posted an angry Facebook status about it.
A few years later, a Facebook memory ("on this day") popped up. By this point, my views on this subject had changed completely, to be supportive of the unions and Tube drivers. But what struck me were the comments. My brother (who’d passed away by then) had written a long time ago, defending the strikes. His wax that kind, empathetic voice. That voice which had seeped into my own.
Bonding through empathy
So I discovered (or perhaps, rediscovered) this strange ability called empathy following my brother's death.
In the same year that my brother died, I met Polly (not her real name), now a good friend of mine. We bonded over shared struggles with family, my brother having passed away and my mum recovering from breast cancer, and her father also with cancer. Shortly afterwards, her family ended up having to pull the plug.
We hadn't really spent much time together, but I remember being asked to attend her father's funeral. I took the day off from work (very uncharacteristic of me) and went. I have this clear memory of holding her hands in mine as we greeted each other and being overwhelmed by this huge sense of love and empathy towards her. It felt like I could be really present for her in that moment, in her grief, like I wouldn't have been able to before.
In the months that followed, I was able to be there for her, perhaps in a way that many others couldn't. We would meet up to talk about grief, depression and the journey we were both going through, and be a source of comfort - give a sense that we weren't alone going through this. Talking about the stupid things that people say both in church and outside of it.
Superpowers and saved lives
In addition to this newfound empathy, I developed another superpower. Sometimes, when I meet someone new, I can sense something about their presence and know that they'd been through something. Now, I know everyone has been through something, but I mean like something traumatic perhaps that has added a certain bass note to their lives. I don't sense this in everyone who's experienced this, but whenever I have sensed it, the person has opened up later about such an experience in their lives.
I ended up connecting with many people through this ability, people that I would not have necessarily connected with before, and some of them became my closest friends. One that is particularly close to my heart is M (also not her real name), who at one point was struggling with anxiety and depression. She told me later that the way I was there for her through her lowest moments, I was literally a life saver. Years later, when I was in my own emotional ditch coming to terms with the prospect of a lost marriage, she was there for me and I can say in all honestly that she saved mine too.
So through my brother’s death, I became a better person. I developed empathy and the superpower to form connections that I wasn’t able to before. Through it I made friends who I am so grateful to have, who have saved my life and whose lives I’ve saved.
I would never say that I’m grateful that my brother is dead. Yet at the same time, I’m grateful for who I have become and am becoming, made possible through his death.
In terms of expressing gratitude, I am grateful for the little things and big things now. I still like to take a moment to be grateful before I eat. But it's different to before. It's not a naive or fake gratefulness and faith.
In my faith tradition, there is a story of resurrection as modelled in the life and death of a Jewish man called Jesus. You may have heard it in this form: you live, you die, and are either raised from the dead into a new body when "New Creation" comes or go to a place called heaven or hell (depending on the particular theological strand you're part of).
But that's not the resurrection story that speaks to me. Rather, resurrection speaks of a deep truth of life. That even in the darkest moments, new life can come forth. It does not ignore the darkness and pain, pretending everything is jolly and we're going to sing happy clappy songs about how damn bright and shiny everything is.
For me, the resurrection story embraces the darkness and pain. It mourns. There is no sugar coating. Yet at the same time, it rejoices, for there is life, even after death.
And I live comfortably now, within this paradox.